Method Acting for Board Games – Immerse Yourself in a Theme (Dev Diary: 07/07/17)

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The following is a cross-post of the Dev Diary for Highways & Byways from my blog, Brandon the Game Dev.

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.



Much like last week, I’m finding myself with downtime in the development of Highways & Byways. I’m making wise use of this time by growing a community of game developers, but that is a subject that I will cover in more detail on another day since community building is such a ripe area for discussion. Instead, I’d like to focus on the conversations that James Masino (the artist) and I are beginning to have about the direction we want to take with the Highways & Byways board design.

Board games have few ways to communicate with players. Video games can use sound and video. Film can use various forms of visual metaphor. Music can use a wide variety of audio techniques. Board games, however, don’t change (unless you add expansions or do a reissue), so you have to make sure everything needed to play is clear to players from the get-go. If you can do so while leaving finer facets of strategy to be discovered slowly over time, even better.


Themes make games easier to understand. You take one look at Ticket to Ride and you know it’s about trains and travel. Posted to Flickr by Jean Marconi under the CC BY 2.0 license. (Source)


Themes are one of the primary ways in which board games can communicate. Just about every game has a theme, unless it’s abstract strategy like Chess, Go, or even Hive. As communication tools, themes function as metaphors. Cure the disease before it spreads to the city. Win the Cold War before the Soviets take over. Connect the United States via rail. Themes create this story that make it easier for players to understand and interact with dry mechanics.

A lot of times, board game designers and publishers will create abstract games and add themes later. While I have theme ideas in mind when I start games, I don’t mind tossing them in the trash if they don’t work. Re-theming is totally fine by me. Once I’ve got the core engine and mechanics of a game going, I like thinking of my game with various themes and seeing what fits.

Then I throw myself into the theme. This is where it gets fun.

Because themes function as metaphors to help players intuitively grasp games, you must understand the essence of a theme before applying it as a metaphor. What I mean by that is that if you make a game about 1500s farming, you should read about 1500s farming and make sure your theme is at least roughly consistent with what people actually did back then. If your game is about warfare, read about battles, read political articles from bygone eras, read Wikipedia, and read relevant genre fiction. If your game is about driving far away, go drive. Highways & Byways came out of my interest in long-distance road travel. The game is a manifestation of another hobby I already had.

I’ve been lots of places. I’ve driven from Tennessee to the following locations: the bottom of Texas, Arizona, Montana, Maine, both Carolinas, and so on…you get the idea. Every once in a while I’ll take a vacation and I’m terrible at being a beach bum. I’d rather have adventure than spend time laying around on the beach. That’s why I’ve spent many night sleeping in my car at campgrounds. I’ve spent many more nights huddled up in Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. I’ve pulled over at far away gas stations only to stretch my legs and clear my floorboard of many discarded coffee cups. I’ve done all this in cars no newer than fifteen years old. Highways & Byways is about rough-and-tumble, tight budget travel by young people, which is what I’ve done.


Scaling a mountain in a 25 year old car that cost $1,500. It can be done.


I’d gathered so many pamphlets and maps and coupons from rest stops along the way. I’ve scrutinized brochures looking for the aesthetic of my game. I’ve paid attention to which maps make sense to me and which ones don’t. After all, Highways & Byways is a gigantic map. Paying attention to what made sense to me gave me a good feel for what to tell James when I was writing up the art spec document for him.

Granted, not all themes lend themselves to “method acting.” Obviously, it wouldn’t have made a bit of sense for me to act out War Co. in real life by shooting spaceships with spaceships. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that Bernd Brunnhofer didn’t live in the Stone Age while creating Stone Age. Still, someone involved in that project had to have become an amateur historian at some point.

Returning to the metaphor of Highways & Byways, James himself is preparing himself to do great artwork by becoming something of an amateur cartographer. He’s spoken to me about looking at all sorts of maps – topographical maps, political maps, metro maps, and so on. He’s looking at the way maps organize information while maintaining their aesthetic sensibilities. He’s doing the same thing I’m doing in a different way – gaining knowledge of a theme so that he can make metaphors stick.

Theme immersion is an illusion caused by the communicative powers of a theme matching up neatly with the game’s core engine and mechanics. To truly understand how to achieve these communicative powers through theme, you need to read as much as you can about your theme. If possible, you could even try living your theme out a little. Sure, you can’t capture in a single game everything that a theme can offer. Yet you can use what serves your game’s purpose. A depth of knowledge will make that far easier to do.



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m still working very heavily on community growth in the interim period while the board is being drawn by James.
  • My main priorities right now are the Discord, newsletter, and Start to Finish articles. I’m getting ahead so that when the board is done, I can focus completely on heavy play-testing.
  • We’ve just started making the board. This will be a tricky process since there is so much data which needs to be neatly organized.

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